Issue Date: September 19, 2011
Diamond Illumines Carbon Cycling
A new examination of tiny diamonds carried to the surface of Earth from the deep mantle helps confirm that Earth’s carbon cycle runs to great depths. This confirmation, researchers say, could lead to a better understanding of the oxidation state, volatile content, and geologic history of the lower mantle.
Oceanic crust—the outer surface layer of Earth found in ocean basins—descends into the upper mantle by subduction, a process caused by tectonic plate movements. The crustal material can return to the surface via mantle upwellings. Some scientists suspected that these processes also extend to the deep mantle, more than 400 miles below the surface.
But that possibility had not been unequivocally confirmed because samples of diamonds from the upper mantle, less than 200 miles below the surface, are common, but those from the deep mantle are extremely rare. Additionally, some researchers believed oceanic crust might simply remain deep in the mantle rather than participate in the carbon cycle.
Now, earth sciences professor Michael J. Walter and researcher Simon C. Kohn at England’s University of Bristol and their colleagues have found what they say is the smoking gun geochemists have been looking for to verify growing evidence of deep carbon cycling (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1209300).
The group found microdiamonds from the deep mantle in the well-studied Juina region of Brazil. They probed tiny mineral inclusions inside the diamonds, a phenomenon they liken to that of prehistoric bugs trapped in amber.
The inclusions match the mineral profile of the ancient ocean floor, suggesting that subducted surface crust material was trapped in the deep mantle during the diamond-forming phase. The diamonds then made their way back to the surface in upwellings. The carbon isotopic ratios of the deep-mantle diamonds also imply that they were formed from crustal material.
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